The Trauma Hero, Roy Scranton
This was an interesting read, because it did voice some concerns I had about the pro-war nature of some of the memoirs and fiction pieces we read. It also put a finger on things I hadn’t realized that these stories had in common, like the absence of politics. However, there were some things Scranton said that I didn’t quite agree with.
His myth of the trauma hero, okay. I buy that completely. There is a sort of “returning warrior” noblesse that comes from some of these narratives. I was taken aback when he chose Wilfred Owen, however, to pick at first. It seems a stretch. He complains about Owen saying that there are things you have to be a soldier to understand, you have to have witnessed these things to know their brutality. Scranton seems to take fault with this, and I don’t think that’s fair at all. Owen is saying that civilians can’t understand, but he’s using that to show them their ignorance, the folly of being pro-war. I don’t think it’s making a prophet out of the soldier at all. It’s certainly not near as condescending as the Hemingway excerpt Scranton chose. Owen makes a plea, to be done with the ridiculousness of war and blind patriotism. He doesn’t set up a decorated emo club.
I also disagreed with his reading of O’Brien’s story. Scranton writes, “The knowledge Tim O’Brien claims to have experienced in Vietnam can’t be understood or even discussed, but only felt.” Okay, yes. And what’s wrong with that? I don’t think that means a person needs to be a soldier so that they can go and experience this, so that they can then become a real man/person/American/prophet/truth-seer. Even if O’Brien chooses to describe the truth of war as something “mystic” and only able to be felt and not described, isn’t that a fair claim? He’s still trying to communicate some truth to readers, and “mystic” is just one description of it. He also tries to describe it by using other pieces of craft, like repetition and listing and dialogue. He’s a writer and he’s writing—so what is Scranton’s deal?
At the same time, I’m not going to argue that there isn’t a war-as-revelation trope. I’m also not going to argue on Powers’s behalf, because I agree with everything Scranton says about Powers’s prose in Yellow Bird.
For a long time, with this piece—actually until near the end—I just sat frustrated with this reading. I couldn’t figure out how Scranton was so blind to the fact that these writers have less to do with how a public loses any “truth” the authors tried to share, or brings its own meaning to a tortured narrative. It’s not until the end of his essay that Scranton finally acknowledges this, and I think this is a flaw in his piece. He’s concealed what is to me the biggest piece of the puzzle in the myth of the Trauma Hero, and that is the civilian consumer. I don’t have an answer for how to fix this problem, either.
He also doesn’t focus on the real bone he has to pick with these authors until the end: the enemy is always just a vague gesture in the sand, a caricature. That’s something I can see, definitely, in these author’s pieces, depending on the story. But, for example, in my initial readings of “Redeployment,” I didn’t read the story saying “killing Iraqis is like killing dogs, so don’t worry reader.” To me, it was something more nuanced, a cloaking of guilt and disassociation—or perhaps painful association—or displacement for the character. Is that so bad? Is it because I’m a “differently” educated reader, because I’m not already pro-war or have a greater awareness of what the likely truth is of American warfare? (i.e. We are probably not the good guys to a whole lot of people, dead and alive.)
Is Scranton saying that not just vets should have the authority to write “war literature” or war trauma? Okay. I think that’s fair, especially as a civilian who has officially written one real world war story and a slew of fantasy ones. I do feel like I understand many truths of war, though certainly not all(maybe more than some veterans who forget that for every “victor” there is a “victim”). But this is partly because I have read the accounts of veterans, and not just for looking for a pithy way to say they agree with my beliefs.
Is Scranton saying that veterans need to start writing in the “victim” of their stories? Is it not enough to make allusions to them, to cloak them in metaphor? Is it time to look our corpses in their faces? To acknowledge that war is nothing but politics? I can’t argue with him there.
[This is a topic I think I could keep talking about, actually, and I’m very intrigued by the idea of the non-veteran war writer now that I think of all the fantasy wars in books. Few of the writers are veterans. I’m also intrigued and disgusted—or maybe just baffled?—by George Packer, whom Scranton talks about in this piece.]